Katie Phang, J.D. ‘00: Building and Applying Litigation Skills

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Katie Phang, J.D. '00

Katie Phang, J.D. ’00, credits Miami Law’s Litigation Skills program with getting her career off to a strong start. “I wanted to be a trial lawyer standing in front of the jury,” she said. “In law school, I took litigation classes and participated in mock trials. That skill-building program was a game-changer for me because it exposed me to real-life trial situations and made me feel comfortable in a courtroom setting.”

Two decades later, Phang has built a strong litigation practice that focuses on commercial, family, real estate, and hospitality matters, as well as criminal defense and special investigations. She is the co-founder of Phang & Feldman, P.A., a Miami-based boutique litigation firm with her husband, Jonathan S. Feldman, as partner, and is also a media relations and crisis management consultant who appears regularly on NBC and MSNBC.

In May 2021, Phang and Feldman took part in the first post-COVID, in-person federal jury trial in the Southern District of Florida before retiring Judge Ursula Ungaro. “It was great to be back in the courtroom, and we were able to obtain a great verdict for our (plaintiff) client,” she said.

Phang said one of the challenging aspects of the case was connecting with jurors who were behind plastic shields at a distance from the attorneys, witnesses, and the judge. “Other than when the witnesses testified, we were all wearing masks, so the jurors couldn’t see the lower half of our faces,” she said. “That made it difficult to transmit our emotional expressions to them. So, we relied on graphic presentations to emphasize the important points in our presentation, because jurors remember more of what they see than what they hear.”

A Skill-Building Program

Learning how to connect with jurors, pick a jury, and highlight the facts in a case are among the topics covered in Miami Law’s Litigation Skills program. By offering rigorous, hands-on training, the program provides students with the practical skills necessary for competent, professional legal service.

“It takes more than just technical proficiency and subject knowledge to be a good trial lawyer,” said Phang, who is an adjunct professor in the program. “You have to make your case interesting and compelling to the jury.”

Although the number of courtroom trials may be declining, litigation departments at major law firms, government agencies, prosecution and defender offices, and legal service organizations continue to staff and hire at record numbers because litigation skills prepare students for all types of legal careers.

“Litigation skills are learned, and almost any law student can become an effective litigator,” added Phang. “You really have to hone your craft in terms of knowing the substantive law as well as the facts of your case.”

A Pathway to Success

Born in New York, Phang came to Miami when her late father, Dr. Michael K. Phang, was named vice-dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Miami.

After high school, she earned her bachelor’s degree in political science at Yale University before returning to Miami to earn her juris doctor cum laude at Miami Law.

After law school, Phang became a prosecutor on Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s team. She began trying misdemeanors and left several years later as a division chief, trying capital homicide cases. “At 29, I was trying life felonies, and the office really gave me great opportunities to grow as a lawyer,” she said. She later joined Broward State Attorney Michael J. Satz’s office in Fort Lauderdale.

In 2012, Phang co-founded Arrastia, Capote & Phang, LLP, where she handled commercial litigation cases for major corporate clients, as well as small-business owners and individuals. Three years later, she joined Berger Singerman, LLP, where she handled a wide range of cases and was recognized for her litigation skills by a number of publications.

In 2019, she decided to found her own firm, and her husband eventually joined her during the pandemic. Owning and operating a family-run firm allows her and her husband to spend time with their six-year-old daughter when not litigating and managing cases.

Teaching Litigation Skills

Phang has been teaching litigation skills for many years and was honored with the 2017 University of Miami Law Alumni Association Leadership Award. Since the spring 2020 semester, she has been teaching online, getting up early for classes from 7 to 9 a.m.

“Trial is like theater and the ‘stage’ changed with the pandemic,” she said. “Both students and instructors had to learn to adapt to that environment. For instance, when the jurors are farther away from you, you can’t move around in the courtroom to emphasize your points.”

Phang said practitioners need to pay attention to the length of their presentations and make adjustments on the fly if necessary. “The longer the jurors sit with a mask, the harder it is for them to pay attention,” she added. “So maybe instead of calling all 10 of your witnesses, you might only call three or four.”

Phang recently edited the 10th edition of the Florida Practitioner’s Guide: Civil Trial Preparation, which is designed to guide the attorney through all phases of trial preparation, from interviewing the client to preparing the closing argument and jury instructions.

“As we teach at Miami Law, you start the process at the end of the case and work backward,” Phang said. “Think about the instructions that will be given to the jury and what you will have to prove. Then look at what evidence you need and the witnesses you will call to establish the facts and introduce that evidence. While you build from the end, you will need to refine your case based on your research, evidence, and legal strategy.”

“Regardless of the courtroom setting, a trial attorney needs to be willing to work,” Phang said. “You have to prepare in detail but be flexible enough to respond on the spur of the moment. You also have to get the jurors invested emotionally in your client’s case. It’s an exhausting process, and you are tired at the end of a trial, regardless of the outcome. But it’s always incredibly rewarding.”

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